Can Joe Maddon's resilient Rays respond to yet another challenge?
Can Rays become only the second team to survive blowing a 3-1 ALCS lead?
The Red Sox have a recent history of winning elimination playoff games
The Rays will send Matt Garza against rested Red Sox ace Jon Lester
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The words, for the most part, came out like they were supposed to, well-rehearsed nuggets of inspirational dogma designed to soothe and to smooth over what has happened to the Tampa Bay Rays in the last few days. But let's get real here: One team is ecstatic about being in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series here on Sunday night. And the Rays are not that team.
No, the grinning Rays are pretty much living a nightmare right now. They may yet wake up, shaken but relieved and on their way to their first World Series. But late Saturday night, after the Red Sox beat them in Game 6 (Recap | Box Score) at Tropicana Field to flip this ALCS on its ear flap, the Rays found themselves suddenly facing the too-real possibility of chucking away what had been an almost for-sure shot at the World Series. And that has to be horrifying. No matter what they say.
"This is one of those things that you dream about as a kid. We want to soak it all in," first baseman Carlos Pena insisted as the clock over his head in the Tampa Bay clubhouse crept toward 12:45 a.m. on Sunday.
"Ah, it's already tomorrow. So [forget] it," reliever J.P. Howell said of the Game 6 loss moments earlier. "It's good that we have an opportunity to play in a Game 7."
Oh, sure, it's great for just about everyone that we have a Game 7. The Red Sox, of course, love it. They were down 3-1 in this series and 7-0 in Game 5 on Thursday night with seven outs remaining. But they fashioned one of the great comebacks in postseason history to win Game 5, 8-7, and Saturday night in Game 6 they evened the series with a convincing, if not particularly aesthetic, 4-2 win.
Game 7s are practically nirvana for baseball fans, too. They are nail-biting, winner-take-everything history in the making. Some of the most memorable games ever have been Game 7s, either in league championships or the World Series: Aaron Boone's homer in 2003, Luis Gonzalez's flair over a drawn-in infield in 2001, Edgar Renteria's bouncer up the middle in '97, Sid Bream sliding into home in '92, Jack Morris' brilliance in '91 and on and on. Bill Mazeroski's homer in '60, the Cards over the Red Sox in '46. All of them were Game 7s.
For the Rays, though, this Game 7 represents a chance at utter infamy. Teams blow big leads in series all the time. The Indians did it in the ALCS just last year, coughing up a 3-1 lead to this same Boston team. Even teams with the homefield advantage -- the Rays still have that going for them -- have folded under the pressures of a Game 7. It happened to the Mets in the '06 National League Championship Series. It happened to the Yankees in the '04 ALCS (they lost to the Red Sox). The Cubs dropped the '03 NLCS in a Game 7 at Wrigley Field.
Still, blowing this lead took a gargantuan effort. Before the seventh inning of Game 5, the Rays were thoroughly outplaying the Sox. They were leading the series, 3-1. They had outscored Boston 38-15. Their bullpen was bulletproof. Their defense was airtight. So it probably wasn't surprising that the Rays spent the moments after the crushing disappointment of Game 6 trying to put the best possible spin on the worst possible scenario.
"We got nothing to lose. It is what it is now," Howell said. "Once you blow something" -- here, he was talking about a game, though he might as well have been talking about a series -- "it's just like, 'Hey, screw it.'"
Said the Rays' always-positive manager, Joe Maddon, from whom they take all their cues: "It's all about how we react to the moment, and it's a seventh game. It's a great learning experience. For us to win that game would be something special for us, also. So it's not about looking into the past. It's about looking into the future right now."
Winning this one will not be easy for the Rays. They spent their best pitcher, James Shields, on Saturday night, forcing Matt Garza to take the start for Game 7 against Boston's rested ace, Jon Lester. The Rays' defense, one of their strong points all season long, suddenly has turned shaky, committing five errors in the past three games. Their lineup, nearly unstoppable during the middle games of this series, managed only four hits Saturday, two weak singles and two solo home runs.
The Rays, let's not forget, are going against the Red Sox, too, a team that has made an institutional habit of suddenly sitting up in its coffin. The Sox came back to beat the Indians last year. They crawled out of a 3-0 hole to beat the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS. They were behind in the '86 ALCS to the Angels, 3-1, and pulled it out.
And if their own problems and Boston's postseason history aren't daunting enough, baseball history -- if you parse it in a negative kind of way -- seems stacked against the Rays, too. Seven teams have bolted upright from a 3-1 coma in the ALCS to force a Game 7. Six won Game 7 and the pennant.
The Rays still have some things going for them, not the least of which is Maddon's ability to make even the worst scenario seem workable and, an outshoot of that, the team's amazing resiliency. Remember, the Rays averaged more than 97 losses a year over their 10-year history. This year, they won 97. They met every challenge in winning the AL East. They've answered a lot of doubters in the postseason. They had the Red Sox beaten in this ALCS.
And now they have to show, one more time, that they can beat them again.
Long after Saturday's game was over, Howell stood in front of his locker in the Rays' clubhouse, chatting with reporters and looking like the 25-year-old kid that he is; graphic t-shirt over loose-fitting jeans, a cap spun off-center on his head. He was smiling, seemingly relaxed and carefree. "We're kind of excited. Love it. Love it," Howell said. "Game 7. We got a shot. It's great. It's great."
And if the Rays repeat that a few more times before Sunday night, they might actually start to believe it.